Nuggets’ Jamal Murray not content despite season-high 31: “He’s still got another level”

On the best night of Jamal Murray’s season, Nuggets coach Michael Malone wanted more.

It wasn’t because what Murray provided — a season-high 31 points, on an efficient 11-for-17 shooting from the field — wasn’t a welcome sight. After all, it took him just 16 games to return to the firebrand scorer he was prior to his devastating injury.

It was because the standard that Malone has for Murray, and the expectation that Murray has for himself, has yet to be achieved.

“I think he’s still got another level,” Malone said.

Amid Murray’s blistering shooting night, which came in Denver’s resounding 129-113 win over Houston, the Nuggets’ stocky guard dished five assists but managed only two rebounds.

Unsatisfied with that number, Malone challenged Murray to average five or six rebounds per game.

“I’m being demanding,” said Malone, who suggested Murray has All-NBA potential once he sharpens his entire arsenal. And maybe that won’t happen this season following Murray’s long layoff, but in order for that to eventually happen, Murray’s rebounding, playmaking and defense need to be a constant in addition to his scoring.

As if he needed another hurdle, his recent bout with COVID undermined whatever gains he’d made conditioning-wise. Murray only cleared health and safety protocols a week ago. When he had COVID, he said he didn’t leave his house.

Murray and Malone are generally in lockstep, so it was hardly a surprise to hear Murray agree with his coach’s assessment after the win. The scoring burst isn’t the problem. Murray has no illusions about his ability to put the ball in the basket.

“I can score the ball, guys,” he quipped. “Don’t be surprised.”

But he conceded he can improve defensively. Murray said there’s still lingering hesitation when he takes contact, which will only get ironed out as the comfort on his surgically-repaired knee improves. His reactions aren’t as natural as he’d like them to be, and he said there are still moments where he’s not as aggressive as he’s accustomed to being.

In those aspects, Murray’s self-aware enough to know he’s not all the way back. In other ways, he already is.

As he and Nikola Jokic sat the entire fourth quarter, a treat born of their work throughout the prior three, Murray tossed candy to the kids behind the Nuggets’ bench, continuing a tradition that never left. He grinned as Ish Smith made clever finishes around the hoop, and smacked the table during his postgame press conference, bemoaning the minutes restriction he claimed he was still under.

Despite the progress that Murray’s made since opening night in Utah — “It’s night and day,” he said — there were still signs of his frustration and evidence that he was hardly content.

In November, Murray’s managed only 42% shooting from the field. When he went only 7 for 20 in a recent loss to the Knicks, he kicked himself for the shots he missed that he’s accustomed to making.

“I feel like when I take them, I’m expected to make them,” he said.

The standard he’s set for himself has never wavered.

For a night, Murray reclaimed his fire. His next hurdle is reclaiming his consistency.

Earlier this season, Jokic claimed his sidekick would struggle for at least 20 games before finding his rhythm. When reminded of that proclamation, Jokic didn’t skip a beat.

“He’s gonna (stink) for a couple more, and then he’s gonna be constant,” Jokic said.

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